Sensuality is oft equated with erotic sexuality and while they tend to go hand in hand, not all sensuality is sexual, or at least not overtly so. Sensuality is a state of pleasure due to stimulation of the corporeal senses. Dining, certainly when at its best, is a sensual experience. If not, what is the point of fine dining? Clearly fine dining exists to provide pleasure to the diner and is therefore meant to be a sensual experience. It is not uncommon for good restaurants to provide sensual pleasure in terms of taste and smell. Many also titillate the visual sense through the use of artistic presentations. Some have tried to bring auditory components into play¹ and many use textural contrasts to highlight the sense of touch. Few, however, combine them all in a package as well as Saison chef Joshua Skenes. The sense of hearing is not directly impacted by the food, but Skenes maintains a musical soundtrack that adds a positive vibe to the room and the experience. Relying on top quality product second to none, Skenes’ presentations are clean, beautiful and look simpler than they are. He allows the inherent flavors to shine and coaxes incredible subtleties that wow not because they pack a huge punch, but because they possess precise definition. Perhaps the greatest sensual quality of his work, however, is the mouthfeel of his dishes. Not content with mere contrasts of soft and crisp, Skenes’ approach to texture approaches genius. His dishes marvel in some instances as a result of a lack of textural distinction between disparate ingredients, while others explore intricate, subtle interplays of texture. I have never previously experienced a meal that so profoundly effected me through this sense.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to say with certainty that something, anything, is “the best.” It is difficult because much subjectivity is involved and even the parameters of what something may be “the best” of or at can be somewhat complex. As difficult as making absolute statements may be, though, sometimes something comes along that is clearly in its own universe. It doesn’t happen often with restaurants, but based on two very recent experiences, Joshua Skenes and his San Francisco stunner, Saison, clearly fit in that category.
I got a compelling taste of what Saison is all about on my first visit, a collaborative dinner with one of my favorite chefs, John Shields. Collaborative dinners are fun, but they don’t replace the experience of dining at a restaurant strictly on its own terms. Such was the case here. Both Shields and Skenes created fantastic and delicious dishes that left me feeling quite satisfied even given the significant expense.² I was excited to learn that night, that Shields, restaurant-less for too long, has finally found a space for his next restaurant in Georgetown, hopefully to open sometime later next year. As I would prefer to discuss the merits of their respective restaurants on their own terms, I will not go into detail on this meal here. However, my photos of the meal, shared with the likes of fellow food bloggers Bonjwing Lee and Chuck Arendt as well as a similarly inclined non-blogging friend of Chuck’s, can be seen here.
The Shields/Skenes dinner whet my appetite to return for the straight up Saison experience, so I returned just three days later to experience Saison in its purest sense. I was glad I did. The experience that followed was sensational in every aspect. This time I got to share it with a fellow Anesthesiologist similarly afflicted with a passion for great food. Good company always helps elevate a meal, but it is essential for a meal like that served at Saison. Paul was a perfect dining companion for this meal.
I arrived a bit early for my 6PM reservation and had a chance to look around the restaurant. I never had a chance to visit Saison in its previous location. I’m sorry that I didn’t, because I don’t have a basis for comparison. On the other hand, my experience at the current restaurant was not biased by feelings for another space. I loved it. I loved the way that the completely open kitchen with its open fire hearth flowed into the warm dining room space that felt like we were dining in someone’s home and the way that the dining room flowed into the all top shelf bar just beyond the restaurant’s entrance. These sections were divided brilliantly so that they each offered elements of privacy, while also offering space and a sense of openness – no mean feat.
I had heard and read much about the way Joshua Skenes ages meats. I was surprised with how small the aging room, which also doubles as a prep room, is. It is compact. but every inch of the space is put to good ordered use and a look inside the special refrigerated aging compartments left me drooling in anticipation of what was to come.
Food preparation was in full swing in the kitchen. Getting close looks whet my appetite further stoking it to fever pitch.
When I arrived I was offered a glass of Krug Champagne – very civilized! The fine bubbles tickled the palate nicely. Krug, like all of the best Champagnes is as much about the mouthfeel as it is the flavor. The delicate, tiny bubbles are elegant and titillating, while the Champagne’s complex flavors wash over the palate. The service started in a stellar fashion and continued so throughout the meal.
When Paul arrived and we sat down at our table just off the kitchen (Tyra Banks was seated at a table to our left as we faced the kitchen), our appetites were further whetted by an opening cocktail from the young, but accomplished barmaster, Chase White. This was clear and to the point. Sochu and Sake steeped with “river vegetables from Japan”³ announced without a doubt that this meal would be influenced greatly by Japanese cuisine. It was a lovely cocktail that also announced that while the Japanese influence would be certain, it was to be just that – an influence. Chef Skenes and the Saison team would use that influence and others to craft their own particular cuisine.
Getting the meal off to a more formal start was more Champagne, this the first glass for my friend, Paul. A non-vintage brut blanc de blancs from Demiére-Ansiot, a small producer of Chardonnay based Champagnes from Oger, was subtle and delicious. Like the cocktail announced that the meal would have influence from Japan, the Champagne was a statement that the cuisine of France would also play a role in the style of cooking developed by Skenes and his team.
The first course was a combination of those two primary influences. Custard with grilled turnip, sea urchin from Fort Bragg and gold leaf was undoubtedly inspired by Japan’s infatuation with French cooking. What a way to start! This haunting dish was pure creamy deliciousness that somehow combined the ultimate in comfort food along with the ultimate in elegance.
The elegance and deliciousness didn’t miss a beat with the next course. A generous portion of reserve Ossetra caviar was dolloped atop a pudding of preserved corn and roasted tomato gelee, an essentially American dish. Caviar, especially of this quality is considered a luxury ingredient for a reason. It was divine, especially when balanced with the complex sweetness of the corn pudding and the tomato gelee, all of which was kept in impeccable balance. This course was also the introductory course at the Shields dinner several nights earlier.
Strict seasonality of fresh ingredients is less important when a kitchen is skilled in preservation for then the preserved product provides its own degree of seasonality. Such was the case with the next small course, coal-kissed amberjack with a broth of preserved cherry blossoms dusted with Meyer lemon zest. This was a dish of pure finesse that didn’t overpower. The flavors were clean and delightful.
Looks and descriptions can be deceptive. “Scallop, avocado, lily” sounds like a nice dish, but not likely a transcendent one. The visual presentation is also rather unassuming. I do love a good scallop and have had some remarkable scallop dishes this year⁴, but this was something else all together. It was a dish of sheer genius that epitomized the meal at Saison. The scallop, alive until it was prepared for the dish was absolutely pristine, clean and with a sweetness that only the sea could give it. On the plate, it just looked like a nice scallop, but hidden within was a perfect piece of avocado and somewhere there was lily. The flavor profile started with the pure presence of a perfect scallop and morphed seamlessly into a finish of the essence of avocado all totally indistinguishable in terms of texture. The dish had the most perfect mouthfeel. It had a melting firmness that provided nothing but pleasure. I’ve never previously had a dish that was essentially one texture that was so complex in terms of its mouthfeel. I realized that it was Skenes’ attention to the mouthfeel of his dishes along with presentation and flavor that makes his food stand out as much as it does. No dish illustrated that more perfectly than this one.
Skenes’ ability to be both subtle yet maintain full flavors was amazing. Battle Creek trout was lightly cured and smoked. It had a wondrous melting quality to it.
Along with the actual trout, a second dish of the trout’s roe atop a croquante of vichysoisse completed the set. This flavorful bite was one of the few that focused on textural contrast, but even here, it was more subtle and refined than one typically encounters.
Abalone is a true California ingredient rarely found in the United States outside of that state. Skenes finished his snacks with some abalone from Monterey Bay that was roasted over the embers of the open fire and served with seaweed and lardo. A sauce made from the abalone’s liver (I never even knew they had livers!) was poured over the preparation. The combination carried the same level of textural and flavor brilliance that had been apparent throughout the early courses of the meal.
Washing down the previous dishes was a lovely Riesling, the consummate food wine. This one, Riesling Smaragd from Jäger in Wachau, Austria, by the Danube, was mineral rich and like the cuisine, exquisitely balanced, though with a relatively high alcohol content for Rieslings of 13.5%.
Tomatoes can be tricky. It is not difficult to make good quality tomatoes taste good, but because of that, it is difficult to make a dish based on tomatoes stand out as exceptional. Skenes did just that when he combined sungold tomatoes with safflower oil and a grilled tomatillo consommé embellished by nasturtium leaves. The dish was naturally sweet, but very well balanced. The tomatillo presence was decidedly in the background as a supporting and balancing element that made these gorgeous tomatoes shine all the brighter. It was a light, but still rich dish.
The brightness of the tomatoes was perfectly enhanced by the lushness of the Daiginjo Sake from Shindo Brewery in Yamagata, Japan.
The tariff at Saison is not a light one, so when offered a dish with white Alba truffles for a significant supplement, I hesitated. I had already passed on it at the Shields dinner, but then I recalled seeing the exquisite truffles earlier and I gave in to temptation and the moment. It was the correct choice as the dish that carried their burden was fully up to the task. A risotto made with Japanese Koshikari rice and fine Parmesan would have been quite nice even without the truffles, but enhanced with a very generous shaving of the melanosporum by Chef de Cuisine, Rodney Wages, it was sensational. The truffles were heady and delicious as they should have been, but often fall short of. This was yet another dish that wowed with subtle textural gradations and a very sensual mouthfeel rather than a more obvious play on distinct textural contrasts and wow it did.
It was beautifully paired with a wonderfully mineral rich 2010 Chablis from Domaine Marcel & Blanche Févre.
When I was at Saison a few days earlier, I had been served a king crab dish prepared by Chef John Shields. At that time, there was still another live king crab in one of the fish tanks.Prior to that night there had been two crabs in the tank along with some live abalone. When I arrived on this night, the last crab was missing from the tank.
Like the crab that had been sacrificed for the Shields dinner, this last one was also put to exceptional use. Chef Skenes paired it with swarnadwipa⁵ spices, yogurt and lime to create a dish that was luxurious, refreshing and delicious. Perhaps it was the rapture I was still experiencing from the truffles, perhaps it was the accumulating level of alcohol in my blood stream, I’m not sure. Whatever it was, I apologize for having actually forgotten to photograph this fine dish even as I videoed its arrival. The photo above, derived from the video, was unfortunately, the best that I could come up with. It’s a shame, because this fine dish deserved a far better fate. The genius here was that each component of the dish could be tasted individually as well as all together and in each way, it was all stunningly delicious. The crab itself was sweet, tender and juicy. King crab doesn’t get better than what was had here.
At least the wine pairing, a lovely Vouvray Sec “Le Mont” 2011 from Domaine Huet escaped the fate of its pairing. This was a lovely wine to pair with the tropical notes of the sweet crab.
The bread service took a surprising twist. Rather than a selection of crusty loaves, a set of wickedly good Parker House Rolls was served along with cheesy cultured butter. Soft, airy and warm, these were all too inviting. Of course with an invitation as alluring as these were, I had to accept.
Fortunately, that one dish was my lone indiscretion of the evening. Skenes has made a reputation of artful and long aging of meats and fish. The next course, the first one with animal protein, utilized silky lamb that had aged for sixty days. It was married with a variety of slow grilled “nightshades” which included eggplant and tomato. It was a voluptuous combination.
The pairing was a bit unusual, but as would be expected here, it worked fabulously. A “Weissburgunder” or Pinot Blanc from the Pfalz region of Germany proved to be a beautiful food wine, lush enough to stand up to the aged lamb and the assertive flavors accompanying it.
Chuck from Chuckeats has called Joshua Skenes’ dish, “Brassicas” “one of (his) favorite vegetable dishes anywhere.” The basic premise of the dish, the next one to our table” is a combination of individually roasted leaves from a variety of plants in the Brassica family served with toasted grains, a slow poached quail egg and an ocean broth. For the rendition referenced by Chuck the broth was bonito based. For this dish, the broth was described as a seaweed bouillon. A dish of complex flavors and textures, I could understand Chuck’s sentiments. It is indeed a brilliant dish.
A dish like the Brassicas with its rich umami base begged for an equally rich and brilliant wine and it got it. This Chassagne Montrachet was Chardonnay at its finest with plenty of character to match and complement the earthiness of the dish.
It is illegal now to serve foie gras in California. Fortunately duck livers can still be procured and prepared. The rendition of plebeian duck liver by Chef Skenes and crew was yet another example of how great cooking can elevate relatively mundane ingredients, though I’m sure that this was the finest plain duck liver that could be had in the state.
The dish was made with white chocolate, bread, milk and beer in addition to the liver. The beer that was used in the dish was the same one, from Germany, that was used in the pairing. The combination was decidedly savory, which I loved.
Our final savory course was built around one of the wood pigeons, a European species, that I had previously spied aging upstairs. This was one of the more complex constructions of the evening. The 28 day aged pigeon had been paired with more duck liver and stuffed inside of a mushroom, which was grilled over the open fire. Underneath the mushroom on the plate was a combination of dates and sunchokes that had been stewed in coffee with a maple syrup foam spread on top. Off to the side was the most perfect wild blackberry I had ever seen or eaten. This was a dish that had layers of flavor that kept growing and evolving. My first bite was somewhat unimpressive, but the more I ate of this dish, the more I fell in love with it. Despite the maple syrup, the dish was decidedly savory.
The pigeon was a totally satisfying way to end the savory portion of the meal, especially when washed down with the luscious, red-fruit-rich 2009 Pommard with which it had been paired.
The time had come for desserts. I was curious to see how Shawn Gawle would approach dessert here. I had enjoyed his desserts at Corton in NYC, but Corton under Paul Liebrandt was a very different restaurant than Saison. What I discovered was that while Gawle had done superb work at Corton, the style of food at Saison was even more up his alley. These were sensational desserts that while they incorporated classics of French tradition, also bore the stamp of Gawle and the restaurant. The desserts proved to be a natural fit with the rest of the meal and maintained the same excruciatingly high standards. We started with a wonderful palate cleanser sorbet of pear, yuzu, huckleberry and absinthe studded with additional huckleberries. The presentation was clean and simple, devoid of excess for its own sake.
A second dessert of raspberry marshmallow wrapped around Meyer lemon curd and sprinkled with raspberry segments and kinome, the peppery leaves of the Japanese sansho pepper, was also delicious without being overwrought.
Of course, dessert couldn’t be served without a dessert wine. We were poured a 1989 Sauternes-Barsac from Chateau Coutet. It had the requisite acidity to complement its sweetness and that of the beautifully prepared desserts.
The third dessert was a special treat that brought us indirectly to Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bakery, a sore omission of this trip. Gawle prepared an ice cream from a Tartine sesame loaf along with a crisp from the bread. It was the next best thing to going to Tartine itself and in some respects better.
The main dessert utilized a staple of French tradition – souffle with ice cream, but added the Saison touch by preparing a buckwheat souffle and serving it with buckwheat ice cream. I can’t recall ever having a souffle that I have enjoyed more. Gawle’s desserts were sophisticated and adult. They weren’t sweet to excess, but used an appropriate level of sweetness to assert themselves as desserts without overpowering the underlying flavors and balance.
Continuing the buckwheat theme, the meal formally closed with a pour of grilled buckwheat tea. It was rich and satisfying and the perfect accompaniment to Shawn Gawle’s exquisite mignardises.
Mignardises can often be an afterthought or worse, additional bites to dread after getting so full. Gawle’s mignardises were neither. These were stellar and worth looking ahead for. There was a fabulous gummy in the spirit of an Old Fashioned, macarons of Earl Gray tea with Earl Gray and milk chocolate centers, vanilla liquid center truffles and two different mini-tartlets, a passion fruit with caramelized sesame and a Chai Tea/chocolate. Each was fabulous and together would have made a great true ending to the meal.
An even better ending to the meal, however, came in the form of beautifully prepared cannele, crunchy on the outside and silky in. We were fully satisfied, but the evening was too great to end just yet.
The meal had taken quite some time, but it was one of those meals in which time simply was not noticed nor was it a factor. Sometimes meals that stretch out can seem truly interminable, but not this one. By the time it had come to a conclusion, we weren’t quite ready to let it go. Paul and I retired to the bar near the entrance to engage in some banter and beverage with barkeep White. We also made some friends with some folks who had been hanging out having dinner at the bar. The gentlemen were kind enough to share a pour of some spectacular Kentucky Rye with us. The 25 year old Hirsch was smooth and deep with rounded edges.
Saison boasts quite a selection of spirits. Chase White is quite adept at making cocktails and on the evening of the Shields dinner I sampled a few. They were well balanced and delicious, but here, we were just wanting to explore some finer spirits. Our next stop after the Hirsch was Japan, specifically ten year old Noh whiskey from the now closed Hanyu Distillery. While only aged for ten years before release, it was made in the last year that the distillery operated and is quite rare. I am relatively new to the field of Japanese whiskeys, but based on this sample, I can understand the attention that they are receiving.
Our world tour continued on to France and a taste of 1972 Armagnac from Chateau du Busca. This was a spectacular Armagnac, but we still weren’t finished.
We tasted a few additional delights receiving an education in the process from the young but erudite Chase White. Two aged rums from islands with French traditions piqued our palates including a fifteen year old Barbancourt from Haiti, that due to the earthquake’s effects on the distillery has become even more rare than usual and another fifteen year old Rhum agricole from Guadeloupe. Both were stunning, but perhaps the most interesting spirit of the evening was the Samaroli Evolution 2011, a unique blend of some of the finest Scotch whiskeys made including Laphroig, Ardbeg and Glenlivet amongst others with the individual component whiskeys dating from 1957 casks and later. This was a special whiskey that showed finesse and flavor.
Somehow we managed to walk out of Saison that night under our own steam. It had been a special evening in every respect. I’m not sure that I have ever had a more complete or finer dining experience on United States soil with only a handful of meals in the United States in the same league as the one I experienced on that night at Saison. Friends like Chuck, Adam and Bonjwing have been singing the praises of Saison for well before I was able to finally get there.Though my expectations were already unseemly high when I arrived, by the time I had left they had actually been exceeded. Yes, the meal was costly in terms of dollars, but I didn’t and don’t regret a cent of it. For the quality of the experience received, it was actually an outstanding value. Count me amongst those who sing the praises of this restaurant. I haven’t been to all of the top restaurants in the country, so I can’t say with absolute certainty that Saison is the best restaurant in the country right now, but I have been to quite a few as well as many from around the world. I find it difficult to believe that at this time there might be one better than Saison.
The quality and style of the cooking most reminded me of the justifiably legendary Asador Etxebarri of Bitor Arguinzoniz in the Basque mountains of Spain, one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. That meal continues to haunt me more and more as I suspect this one will continue to do. Skenes, like Arguinzoniz, uses fire with consummate skill to bring out the best of the superlative ingredients at his disposal and like Arguinzoniz imbues his food with a luscious sensuality. Extebarri sets the mood for the experience by being the ultimate in destination restaurants. It isn’t particularly easy to get to, but the diner is rewarded with a gorgeous setting as well as unsurpassed food. Saison doesn’t offer the same type of setting as Etxebarri and focuses on different ingredients and combinations than Etxebarri and so much the better for that. The Saison experience is one of San Francisco and incorporates a number of cultural influences as well as a setting that is more luxurious than that found at Etxebarri with service more fitting of a three Michelin starred restaurant than the more casual Etxebarri. The restaurants are similar, but they have differences and I celebrate both of those. They have both become very, very special to me. They have similar souls and I consider them both amongst the very best restaurants in the world.
Please see here for my complete Flick’r Photoset from this meal.
¹ At Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, an iPod with sounds of the sea was sent along with a marine oriented dish provides a famous example of using auditory elements to enhance a dish.
² Make no mistake, a meal at Saison is not for someone averse to spending money on food. It is not cheap. In fact, the cost is amongst the highest in the country, yet the value, for those who appreciate a great meal, is unbeatable. or my part, this was amongst the greatest values that I have ever experienced in high end dining in the United States and even the world.
³ Fresh water seaweed
⁴ The shaved scallop dish at Birch stands out as a particularly great one.
⁵ While I suspect that Saison makes its own spice blends, here is a link to a page with a description of what constitutes at least a version of the blend.